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Monday, February 15, 2016

You Asked, no. 12: Basket of light

Mary Boxley Bullington, Briar-Patch. 2009. Acrylic, gesso, oil pastel on paper, 30" x 22." Julia Rose Collection, Fork Union, VA. Click for larger images.
In response to a request to interview some of my painter friends, I have been interviewing Mary Boxley Bullington. As she, in turn, insisted on interviewing me, a part of the You asked series will be composed of our questions to each other.


You are unusual among contemporary American poets in that you love form and formal meter. Why do you love it so much? And how does this help you when you are writing and revising your poems? And how does it help you write free verse?


Dear Mistress Nosey,

Why do I love formal poetry so much? I love shapeliness. I love complicated rhythm and sound, all interwoven and laced and accruing energy as it goes, like a basket full of light. I like the way a sudden contorted idea, say, can be reflected in the meter. Or how the swiftness, sleekness of a running cat is caught in metered lines. Whatever the subject, form can marry content in a great celebration of vigor and sound when the constraints of form are imposed. I love the way poetry lives in the borderlands between the written word and song, and that metrical poetry is always running toward the land of song.

I also love difficulty of achievement, and striving for the goals of mastery—to be better than I am, to grow bigger on the inside as I go. In The Castle of Indolence, Tom Disch wrote that many a free verse poet would come a cropper if attempting to wield meter and rhyme. As someone who didn’t give up on formal poetry, he no doubt had received a good bit of scorn for his perseverance in the art. But some of our poetry has become entirely too easy—any bit of prose broken into lines can be claimed as a poem. The result can appear very far from the spirited playfulness of creation. Formal poems don’t leave a lot of room for the easy; they’re salutary medicines, good and joyful for the mind.

Do I object to the existence of free verse? Not at all. I write some, now and then. When I write in that mode, I feel free in a way that must mimic this historical movement of poetry—that is, I’m breaking with my own past, frolicking and dancing on the bones of metrical lines. (Here Ms. Mary Boxley Bullington will want examples, but she’ll just have to wait until a batch of newish free verse poems of mine is up online—six will be in At Length soon. Even there, a reader would see lots of parallelism, sound weaving, narrative, and other organizational strategies.) It’s only when I’ve written a good deal of formal poetry that I think it even possible to write some free verse that satisfies me.

The world of poetry used to be a big place, crammed with many and varied forms, but for a very long time now it has been dominated by short lyric poems, often containing a small epiphany. Writing in form leads a poet to explore forgotten forms, and to discover that poetry once had a far greater range of subject that we find today. Thaliad (Phoenicia, 2012) is part of a Western epic tradition that includes Homer and Virgil. What other forms have we tended to forget? Bucolics (eclogues). Satire. Masque. Verse epistles. Romance. Georgics. Canticle. Plays in verse. Riddles. Philosophical essays in verse. Etcetera. Allegory probably will never come back, but some other genres might be re-made for our day. I like to live in that larger realm of forms; I like to write my poems inside it. And that means writing in shapes. Sometimes it means thinking about how to make very old things live again and be new.

You ask about revision. Rhyme especially warrants revision. To make every rhyme feel natural and yet have it be plucked from a limited array of words; to have the syntax be clear while yet landing the rhyme syllable(s) at line’s end; to avoid padding to get to line’s end: these are the sorts of challenges that appear when a writer begins experimenting with form. Write in metrical lines for long enough and the making of them may feel like instinct. But it’s perilously easy to make an error, simply by paying attention to rhyme words and not to the context and the poem as a whole. An error in rhyme word choice becomes an error in meaning or tone or logic, and a little time shows those mistakes clearly—more clearly than in a free verse poem, where decisions made often seem fuzzy or random.

Rhyme is magic. Magic! Rhyme whirls the poet to an unexpected place. Rhyme tosses the poet away from any obsessions with the self. It insists that allegiance is not to oneself but to the poem, and to the making of new sense from the swirl of rhyme sounds generated by the opening lines. Thus rhyme demands a certain self-forgetfulness. Self-forgetfulness is a fruitful way to be, if a poem is in the offing. Rhyme sounds hurl the writer toward fresh ideas that never would have appeared if the constraint of rhyme hadn’t pushed a new direction.

Here’s an example from a sonnet where I had no plan, no goal, and only that lovely sense that a poem was about to wash through me; rhyme led the way forward (from Able Muse, winter 2013; reprinted in Irresistible Sonnets from Headmistress Press, 2014, edited by poet Mary Meriam):

(from “The Baby and the Bathwater”)

Let it go, let it all go down the drain—
Ash from the crossroads where a witch was burned,
Dirt from the cellar where a queen was slain,
No heir escaping death, and nothing learned,

The crescent moons of darkness under nails,
Ditch-digger’s drops of sweat, the blood from soil
That sprouted fingertips, the slick from snails
Glinting on butchered peasants left to spoil:

Let it swirl, let it all swirl down the drain—
Let murderous grime be curlicues to gyre
Around the blackened mouth, let mortal bane
Be gulped, and waste be drink for bole and briar.

Here’s a new washed babe; marvel what man mars,
The flesh so innocent it gleams like stars.

I’m not all that fond of walking people through poems—I prefer unmediated experience—so I’ll just say something about the progression in the poem as it related to rhyme. And this I am only doing because Mary asked, so don't expect it to happen again! Going for “learned” as a rhyme with "burned" tilted the poem strongly toward the hopelessness of history and experience (whether witch-burnings, the Russian Revolution, the Holocaust, etc.) as a means to teach human beings and so reinforced the idea of “letting it go.” (Yes, it's a rather dark poem.) “The crescent moons of darkness under nails” pointed a way toward other dark and light elements in the poem—stars, the round black mouth, the silvery track of snails. (Seen from the right angle, recurrence of such opposing images is a kind of rhyme as well.)

Though it’s a Shakespearean sonnet, the poem tends to break in half after the first two quatrains that are a catalogue of darknesses. The opening line of the third quatrain is almost a repeat and uses the same end-word as the first line, and that means an increased tightness in the rhyme scheme. The voice in the poem is more commanding, thanks to repetition and parallelism, and it also rises to a higher pitch of speech, moving considerably away from daily talk. (A great deal of contemporary free verse is allergic to a higher level of speech.) “Drain” calls up a rhyme word out of the past, out of the real but half-mythic world where witches are burned and queens murdered: “mortal bane.” “Gyre,” likewise, is a higher note, and “Let murderous grime be curlicues to gyre” is probably the line that surprised me most. “Gyre” generated a word connected with the mythic realm of witch-spelled, sleeping queens: "briar."

The turn in the final couplet to the baby, a newness salvaged from the bathwater of history—whether an everyman sort of baby or even the Christ child, marred by man—was in great part generated by sound. “Marvels” led to “mars,” and “mars” in turn led (for no planetary reason!) straight to stars. As a mother, I was often struck by the fairy beauty of babies and small children. I never fully knew that beauty until I had children of my own. My small, blond children sometimes seemed to reflect light, to glisten and be gleaming with tiny crystals. So the very opposite of marred man and woman was unmarred infancy, bright and clear, unsullied by the darkness of history. In the end, the poem doesn't throw out the baby with the bathwater.

In poetry, rhyme makes us make it new. Rhyme makes me surprise myself, and surprise in creation is a delightful, invigorating feeling that urges a writer on. The poet then follows a magical thread from rhyme sound to rhyme sound, calling up new and unexpected meanings. Rhyme is the smack of the ball hitting the bat and flying into the sun—coming down and caught who knows where.

Early Snow, January 2016 Acrylic, gesso, India ink, oil pastel on paper, 22" x 22."


  1. Brava! As someone who loves formal elements of poetry, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this posting. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. BTW, I have changed my blogging address to Beyond Walden Pond; you are, of course, invited to visit often.

    1. Oh, my, you have traveled again! See you there. And thanks.

  2. "Rhyme is magic. Magic! Rhyme whirls the poet to an unexpected place. Rhyme tosses the poet away from any obsessions with the self. It insists that allegiance is not to oneself but to the poem, and to the making of new sense from the swirl of rhyme sounds generated by the opening lines. Thus rhyme demands a certain self-forgetfulness...."

    What a great way to put it. It's a wonderful feeling when the poem itself produces words you hadn't foreseen. That's one of the advantages of form: if the poem works, you'll be as surprised and as delighted by it as a reader will be.

    1. It's so strange that in our day so many writers think rhyme is constraining, when it is in fact a force for freedom.


    2. Why I love your response to my question about poetic form
      for Marly Youmans

      I love your shapely verbal basket filling with light
      into which leaps the swiftly metered cat
      come in from the dappled borderlands
      between written word and song.

      Swelling the bright interstices
      he coils and curls until he plaits
      a second basket plush with purr.
      What other forms has he lately tried

      and forsaken? what epics? what satires?
      what sunlit pastorals? Hunting all day
      along bucolic streams, Cat knows poetry
      is a very coy mistress, a magician

      subtle as a mouse rippling the grass.
      Crouched in the meadow Cat
      awaits Rodent's fatal mistake. O but
      Good Rhyme is magic! Mouse escapes.

    3. Thank you, Ms. Mary, for the very first poetic response (I think!) to a blog post of mine, and the sight and sound of Cat batting around my words.

  3. Great to see someone celebrating Shakespearean sonnets in this day and age. Without them I'd never have been tempted to versify. The great thing is the structure is so tightly defined that the writer is there out on a limb, exposed to even the most glancing critic. Anyone can see whether the sonnet's lousy or not and here's a lousy one I prepared earlier. About the tenth I ever tried, three or four years ago, when I was besotted with polysyllables and had a cavalier disregard (I notice for the first time) for punctuation.

    Coughing, etc

    This other voice, this interruptive jolt
    This inarticulate explosive bray
    This unwarned auditory thunderbolt
    That breaks communication by its sway.

    An unkempt voice grown ragged down decades
    Its origins in poisoned northern fumes
    Remote from cliché comfortable glades
    Enshrined in chimney stacks and rattling looms.

    A wrestler’s hold that forced the primary voice
    Through nostrils to evince a captious whine
    Removing too the beneficial choice
    Of lungs resistant to the breath’s decline

    Accent, nasality and coughing can
    Identify the true West Yorkshire man.

    I should have hung around your blog at the time, learning what to plagiarise. Like the courageous (and simple) repetition in your first line; the mini-history crammed into the second and third lines; noting the hommages (I too have used "gyre" and, I suspect, for the same reason.)

    I don't think you should provide walk-throughs unless there's some sort of pedagogic imperative. The process is too intimate to be disassembled. And I see we agree on one important matter, that my verse and your poetry doesn't exist until the ball slaps into the fielder's mitt.

    1. Yes, well, Mary asked me to do it! The original response had no poem and no discussion of rhyme in a poem. It is not my bent to walk-through poems, especially my own. You won't see me making a habit of it!

      Interesting how your poem hews so closely to the iambic (with a couple of variants) and yet the word choice carries the jolting, particularly in the developed-by-parallelism stanza that begins the poem. And I like the subject; the sonnet is so capacious a little room. We seem to be able to store in it an infinite variety of subject. I take it you have returned to the fold on punctuation! How else, I wonder, have your sonnets changed, and what are you "besotted with" at the moment?

      I haven't written as many sonnets as you evidently have, but I've been thinking about them lately and just wrote one called "Cassandra in the Fields of Gold." May be more ahead!

      You are right. "Gyre" belongs to Yeats, and it will be centuries (if ever) before it can be used without evoking him. Gorgeous word.

    2. Yes, well, the devil asked me to do it! Her name is Mary!

  4. Simpler language, a tendency towards narrative, a growing desire to speak with an English tone of voice. This one's rather derivative and spoilt by over-compression and obscurity in lines eleven and twelve. So why didn't I re-write them? Feebly I offer: they meant something to me at the time and, God forgive me, the subject's personal.

    Mind you I'm glad you did walk through your sonnet. If compelled, poets should be able to do this provided the audience is presumed sentient. One wouldn't do it for fools. I re-read the exegesis and I admired the number of things you had cooking in the pot; my stuff's much more linear.

    I sometimes wonder why I do verse since I'm shockingly under-informed about it. The best answer is that verse is shorter and less diffuse than a novel. Varying the pace while jogging, say.

    Publishing whole sonnets in your comments box shatters the limits of hospitality and this will be the last

    Pittsburgh, Christmas 1971

    I waited, knowing the festivities
    Would choke the flow of transatlantic calls,
    Delays which brought their own blank auguries,
    A prelude to the saddest of farewells.

    “Ah… yes…,” my brother said, quite languidly,
    Languor that looked for comfort in delay.
    But what he added lacked necessity,
    The link was cut and youth had gone astray.

    She died within a distant older place
    I’d left behind with callow eagerness,
    Yet unrestrained by any false embrace,
    Encouraged, taught, with chances of success.

    She wrote, I write, but here’s the difference
    No letters, now, to foil my ignorance.

    1. Thank you for the poem, so different from the last one. You know, I don't mind a bit--sonnets are welcome! People don't often leave poems, but you're not the first. Your rhymes in this one are very different from the last, and the subject, narrative shape, and punctuation as well. I take it this one was much more recent.

      Surely you have informed yourself by the writing of poems? No matter how much we read about how poems work, only writing them really teaches how to make one.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.